My quiz on “Fear in Dogs” has provided me with SO MUCH educational fodder! Let’s take a look at the following question:
“If your dog is afraid of something, use a piece of food to lure the dog closer to it. Over time, the dog will learn not to be afraid.”
True or false?
I can tell you that is something I would not do — EVER. Here’s why:
Let’s say your dog is afraid of new people — a very common fear. Your solution is to use a cookie to lure the dog in close or hand the cookie directly to the other person. You instruct the other person to hold out the cookie, and …
Now the dog has to make a choice.
Remember, the dog is afraid, but the stranger is holding a cookie and the dog wants it. So the dog can either screw up his courage and snag the cookie or opt out altogether.
Let’s consider the dog’s emotions when he is at his absolute closest point to the person. When he is within inches of the cookie because he has crept all the way up to snag it. Is he feeling better or worse as he gets closer to the person/cookie? Well, if a giant hairy monster were holding your child and you had to creep up and try to grab your child back, would you be feeling better or worse as you got closer?
I would argue that the dog is at the greatest point of discomfort when he is closest to the person and trying to grab the cookie. Based on my experiences watching people apply this method, most dogs snatch the cookie at the point of maximum fear and then try to get out of there lickety-split — which should tell you something right there. They didn’t get more comfortable close to the person; they dealt with it so they could get the food. But did they enjoy that experience? Maybe not so much.
Let’s consider a few other scenarios.
In the first scenario, the person you want your dog to visit is mellow, the dog’s fear is very mild, and the dog’s interest in food is also mild — the dog can take it if he wants it or leave it if he feels pressure. That might be the equivalent of a quiet person holding out a $1 bill to a shy child — not that important to the child, but maybe … maybe … worth going up to take.
Now the dog makes a choice. The dog eventually decides to go up and take the food from the stranger and then wanders away.
In that scenario, it’s very likely that this method would help! The reason is the dog isn’t really afraid — just a bit unsure of the novelty. Nothing bad is going to happen because the person is handing over a cookie and isn’t interacting at all — the whole thing is over in a few seconds and then everyone moves on. Because the dog’s interest in food is low, the dog is able to make a conscious choice about whether or not he really wants to get it.
Now let’s consider a middle scenario. The dog’s fear is a little greater, the person you want your dog to visit is likely to try to reach out and pet the dog after he comes close, and your dog’s interest in food is medium. How does this one end? That might be like a nervous child looking at a strange-looking person who is holding a box full of every kind of candy imaginable — and this kid loves candy!
Now things start to get more problematic. If the dog is hungry or really wants that cookie, then he is likely to walk in even as he is extremely uncomfortable. It’s not making the dog feel better about the person holding the food; it just means the dog is working to focus on the cookie and overwhelming his own fear. But wait, there’s more! When the dog is at his greatest and most nervous moment, when he is close enough to grab the food, the person reaches out to pet the dog! That’s the dog’s worst nightmare come true! Remember, that’s what the dog was worried about in the first place, that the person would try to interact. And he did!
Over time, with a dog like this, the dog may or may not approach to get the cookies, but he’s not becoming more comfortable with the person. He’s simply dealing with it so he can get what he wants.
And that child? That would be equivalent of the child deciding to deal with this strange-looking person, getting close enough to snag his favorite candies, and then the person reaches out and tries to touch him! Yikes!
And now let’s look at the worst-case scenario. The person has every intention of interacting with the dog when he’s close and he’s not going to take no for an answer. The dog is quite fearful and the dog is quite interested in the cookie, or very hungry! To the point that the dog feels he has no choice; he must approach the person, even though he’s terrorized, to get that cookie. Some dogs are like this! The human equivalent would be a child who has been lost in the forest for several days. By luck, the child stumbles upon a person with plates of food. And while the child is terrified of the person, he wants the food so he won’t starve to death.
Now, what happens? The dog creeps in; everything in the dog’s body language reveals misery. As the dog is attempting to snag the cookie and back out as quickly as possible, the enthusiastic person suddenly reaches out quickly with the other hand to try to pet the dog. As the dog backs up, he takes a few more steps forward and is reaching out towards the dog! Now the puppy can growl, bark, bite, pee lunge, etc., and one of those may work; the person may back off! Or not. And the human child? I think you can figure it out. It’s not too good.
When it comes to dogs, people seem to reason that once the dog has taken the cookie, the dog now “gets” to experience a wonderful opportunity for petting! So now I’ll pet him and he will love it even though his behavior shows he is trying to escape. And he will love me forevermore!
But it doesn’t work that way. I mean, I don’t like random strangers touching me and I don’t like it more if they hand me money first. That’s sort of the textbook definition of prostitution, and I don’t see people lining up for that job.
The problem with the food lure method is that the dog is at his greatest point of discomfort at the same time that he is able to get the food, which happens to be when he is closest to the fear-inducing thing. That’s a problem! We want our dogs more comfortable when they are near the fear-inducing thing. If the dog’s fear is very mild in the first place then the lure method can work fine, but as soon as the fear is slightly more pronounced then it’s quite risky, especially if the dog’s high interest in food masks the logical reaction to fear: to move away and gather information from a distance until one feels safe enough to approach out of curiosity rather than an internally driven need for food.
But wait, there’s even more! This approach can be outright dangerous because it teaches puppies to approach people even when they’re afraid. For example, when a random person reaches out her hand for the dog to sniff — a common way we teach people to approach dogs they don’t know (which makes no sense but that’s a story for another day) — the dog thinks she has food! It’s an easy misunderstanding. So the dog walks up to get a piece of food, but now the person who is being approached directly thinks the dog wants to say hello. Why else would the dog be approaching? She doesn’t know the dog’s prior experiences with strangers is snagging cookies in a heightened state of fear. So she does what most normal people do when friendly dogs approach; she looks directly at the approaching dog, smiles wide, says hello in an enthusiastic tone of voice, steps forward, and reaches out to pet the dog. And then all hell breaks loose. And everyone says, “I don’t get it! He walked right up to the person! And then he went crazy barking and lunging!”
And that, in a nutshell, is why you don’t give strangers food and lure the dog forward.
Now, if the thing you are luring the dog towards is an inanimate object that isn’t about to respond to the dog, this method has a lot less risk. So if your dog is nervous about a rock on the ground, and you toss some goodies in the direction of the rock, you’re probably not going to do much harm. I actually think there are better ways to do this, but that’s not important for right now.
Just remember, don’t lure dogs towards things that might respond and, since all human beings might respond, they are off the table as a category.
If you plan on continuing with this method regardless of what I say, then consider both the dog’s level of fear and his interest in food. The higher these two factors are, the more risk there is with the method. So the idea of using very high-value treats to overwhelm the dog fear? Yeah, no. I would not do that.
So what should you do if you have a dog who is fearful of people? In my opinion, fearful dogs require professional handling if the dog is moderately or severely fearful and if simple management isn’t enough to keep the dog comfortable and the world safe. Reading a book or a blog is awesome for helping you understand what might be going on with your dog and how a dog trainer might address the issues, but when there is risk of a dog bite or a dog having panic attacks or severe anxiety over the training, that’s just not the place to go it alone. Work with someone who can help you.
If you missed the fear quiz, you can take it here: Fear quiz
On another note, registration for 36 dog sports classes at FDSA opened yesterday on our BRAND NEW WEBSITE! Plenty of great classes to choose from so take a look at the schedule and make your selections! I’ll be teaching Relationship Building Through Play and I have a webinar coming up on December 6th on Redefining Leadership, so come join me if you’re interested in either of those topics!